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Syria - The Diplomatic Track

In June 2012, Washington and Moscow, along with other major powers, met in Geneva and agreed on a road map, known as the Geneva Communique, for Syria's political transition. The document envisioned the establishment of a transitional governing body - agreed upon by both sides - in Syria with full executive powers that would oversee elections and put the country on the path to democracy. Since then, several attempts to bring together the two sides have failed, mainly because of disputes over who should represent the Syrian opposition and government in the talks and over Assad's future role in the country.

Syria's government said it would call for a cease-fire at a proposed United Nations-backed peace conference aimed at ending the country's civil war. Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil told The Guardian September 20, 2013 the conflict had reached a stalemate, saying neither the government nor the rebels are strong enough to defeat each other. He told the British paper the Syrian government would also propose an "end to external intervention" and the start of a "peaceful political process" at the long-delayed conference in Geneva. The United States and Russia have been trying for months to bring together members of Syria's government and rebel forces to the so-called Geneva Two talks.

2014

Syria's government and some elements of the opposition began peace talks in Switzerland 22 January 2014, with President Bashar al- Assad's role in Syria's future expected to be a key stumbling block. The Geneva 2 meeting aimed to create a transitional government with full executive powers. While few expected the talks will reach this goal, its supporters are hoping the discussions would at least result in increased humanitarian access and local cease-fires to make life easier for Syrian civilians. The Syrian National Coalition - the country's main political opposition grouping in exile - agreed to attend the talks, but the SNC had little influence on the ground in Syria and many rebel military units have rejected its authority. The Syrian government considered all rebel forces to be terrorists, and has tried to shift the focus of the talks from forming a new government to fighting terrorism.

A communique from the first Geneva meeting on Syria referred to a “transition” that the opposition and its Western backers have interpreted to mean Assad's departure. However, the Syrian president and his Russian and Iranian allies disagree, insisting Assad must be part of any transition. Many opposition leaders refused to attend talks without a prior commitment that Assad step down. In a statement, the foreign ministry said that those who supported Assad's removal from power should "wake up from their dreams".

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had no bigger ally than Iran, and his government expected Iran will be invited to planned peace talks in Geneva "just like any other state." The international mediator to the conflict, Lakhdar Brahimi, agreed. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Iran will come if it was given an unconditional invitation. But the US said Iran must first agree to the establishment of a transitional Syrian government by "mutual consent" which presumes that President Assad's opponents would never agree to his joining an interim government and would thus end his rule.

William McCants of the Brookings Institution observed that "Even if the Syrian opposition coalition is able to come to some sort of terms with the Assad government, the fact that the largest fighting group, the Islamic Front, has denounced the negotiations means it is not worth the paper it is printed on ..."

By mid February 2014 more than 140 thousand had died since the beginning of the Syrian Revolution. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, documented the martyrdom, the killing and the deaths of 140,041 people, since the start of the Syrian Revolution in the date of the martyrdom of the first martyr in Daraa province in the 18th of March-2011, until the date of 14th February-2014. The past 24 days witnessed the largest daily rate of casualties, in conjunction with the start of Geneva II talks, between the Syrian opposition factions and the Syrian regime representatives, where the first condition for holding the sessions was supposed to be to a stop of all of the military operations.

The Syrian government’s refusal to accept a compromise proposed by U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi has put the future of deadlocked Syrian peace talks in question. Lakhdar Brahimi said the two parties ended a second round of talks 15 February 2014 without even discussing a date for resuming negotiations.

Moscow, an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, had pushed to restart talks that collapsed in Geneva in February. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in December 2014 that he wanted Syrian opposition groups to agree among themselves on a common approach before setting up direct talks with the Damascus government. But Lavrov did not specify which opposition groups should take part. Some opposition groups are tolerated by Damascus but shunned by the opposition in exile.

Syria said on 27 December 2014 it was willing to participate in "preliminary consultations" in Moscow aimed at restarting peace talks in 2015 to end its civil war. But members of the Western-backed Syrian opposition dismissed the Russian plan, saying there was "no initiative." Syrian state television quoted a source at the foreign ministry saying "Syria is ready to participate in preliminary consultations in Moscow in order to meet the aspirations of Syrians to find a way out of crisis."

2015

As the Syrian conflict entered its fifth year, US Secretary of State John Kerry said 16 March 2015 it was time to “reignite a diplomatic outcome” to a conflict that had killed more than 200,000 people and displaced millions. Kerry said an effort is underway to convince Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to “change his calculation” and enter into negotiations. “We have to negotiate in the end,” Kerry said Sunday. “We've always been willing to negotiate in the context of the Geneva I process,” he added, referring to a 2012 conference that called for a negotiated transition to end the conflict.

Saudi Arabia Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said any transition cannot begin in Syria until Assad leave power. Saudi Arabia, the top oil exporter and main Arab ally of the United States, had long feared that the Obama administration lacked the resolve to tackle Assad and that it was instead focusing on a nuclear deal with the Syrian leader's main supporter Iran.

US State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf later issued a statement saying that US policy had not changed, adding “there is no future for a brutal dictator like Assad in Syria.” Deputy U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told representatives of the Syrian opposition and members of the Syrian-American diaspora the United States remains committed to a genuine political solution to end the war and restore the nation.

The first series of the Vienna talks, attended by the Ministers for Foreign Affairs of 17 States, was held on 30 October 2015. In the declaration adopted at the end of the talks, the participants notably called for “inclusive, non-sectarian governance followed by […] elections”, and stressed that the ensuing political process should be “Syrian-led and Syrian-owned”. They also called for, in conjunction with the political process, a ceasefire sponsored and monitored by the United Nations. While borrowing some of its elements from the Geneva communiqué of June 2012, the Vienna declaration generated much-needed political momentum among the parties.

Talks resumed in Vienna on 14 November with the same participants now under the International Syria Support Group, with the inclusion of the League of Arab States. In its statement, the Support Group expanded on the Vienna declaration, presenting a specific timeline for political transition and elections within 18 months. Formal negotiations between the Government and the opposition were set for 1 January 2016. The Support Group welcomed the efforts, together with the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, to “bring together the broadest possible spectrum of the opposition, chosen by Syrians, who will decide their negotiating representatives”.

On 9 December 2015, a meeting for the opposition was held in Riyadh with the aim of reaching an agreement on negotiating principles with the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic. In their final statement, the participants stressed the willingness of the opposition to engage in intra-Syrian negotiations, but insisted on a series of confidence-building measures by the Government as a sign of good faith before negotiations could be held. They also called for the departure of the Syrian President before the start of any transitional phase. A 34-member high negotiations committee was subsequently created. It includes a representation from the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change and armed groups.

In parallel to the Riyadh conference, a meeting representing the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – a force dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), and including their allies among Arab and Assyrian armed groups – and other opposition groups was held in Derik, in the north-east of the Syrian Arab Republic. A political entity, the Democratic Syrian Assembly, was subsequently created to represent the group.

The unanimous adoption by the Security Council of resolution 2254 (2015) on 18 December 2015 was the successful culmination of both rounds of the Vienna talks. The resolution reflected the agreement among the permanent members of the Council on the conditions for a political solution, as expressed in the Vienna declaration and the statement made by the International Syria Support Group. In resolution 2254 (2015), the Council also called for a series of confidence-building measures by the parties, including unimpeded access to humanitarian aid and the release of detainees. Important differences remain among the parties, however, with regard to the fate of President Assad during and after a transitional period. The Secretary-General had warned that negotiations should not become hostage to this issue alone.

While a relative regional and international consensus underpinned the latest diplomatic push, certain issues must be settled for negotiations in Geneva to achieve some success. Specifically, a number of Syrian groups and independents, including those under the Democratic Syrian Assembly, who do not currently come under the umbrella of the high negotiations committee, have requested to participate in direct talks with the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic.

The members of the high negotiating committee also demanded that the Government take a number of confidence-building measures, in accordance with Security Council resolution 2254 (2015), before any negotiations can be held. Despite existing challenges, the efforts made by the Special Envoy have been instrumental in bringing the parties together and generating the consensus necessary for the latest political impetus. His good offices remain crucial for pushing the Geneva negotiations process forward and for keeping the momentum among the parties in the coming months.

2016

As the 19 February 2016 deadline for honoring a truce in Syria passed with little sign of compliance, Russia had presented a resolution to the UN Security Council aimed at stopping Turkey's cross-border shelling of Syrian Kurds. The US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power accused Russia of trying to create a distraction from its own failure to stop bombing raids assisting the Syrian government's campaign to surround and recapture Aleppo, Syria's largest city.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said February 21, 2016 a "provisional agreement" has been made with Russia for a cease-fire in Syria's five-year civil war. American and Russian diplomats would now need to convince their allies in the country to sign on to the deal. Moscow backed forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a long-time U.S. foe, with military support.

The main rebel coalition in Syria said it was willing to accept a temporary truce, but only if Russia called a halt to its airstrikes and the Damascus government ended its offensive near the Syrian-Turkish border. Russia said it would not stop its airstrikes against what it called terrorist targets in Syria, even if there was international agreement on a temporary truce, which diplomats called a "cessation of hostilities."

On 22 February 2016 the United States and Russia were reported to have agreed on a plan for a cease-fire in Syria starting on 27 February 2016. Officials and diplomats said the truce would exclude attacks on the Islamic State group and the al-Qaida affiliated Nursra Front.

Keir Giles, an associate fellow at the UK-based current affairs and foreign policy think tank Chatham House, begrudgingly admitted 04 March 2016 that "the agreement on a limited cessation of hostilities in Syria has achieved some of its immediate aims of reducing bloodshed and creating conditions for the delivery of urgent humanitarian aid." However, he added, "by meeting a wide range of Russian objectives, not limited to Syria itself, it also stores up trouble for the West. In particular, the agreement has confirmed for Russia that assertive military intervention is the most effective means of achieving swift and positive (for Moscow) foreign policy results."

"Russia has every reason to be satisfied with the current agreement," Giles wrote. "It achieves a Russian goal that has been consistent since the beginning of the conflict in Syria: stopping military operation by opposition forces against the Assad government."

In any case, Giles complains that "the single biggest detriment of the ceasefire agreement is that it demonstrates once again that direct military action overseas is Russia's best method of achieving strategic objectives, with little if any adverse consequence."

"Syria," he argues, "represents the fourth occasion, following Kosovo, Georgia and Ukraine, where decisive Russian military intervention has substantially altered the situation in Moscow's favor." Russian "military adventurism," the analyst paradoxically suggested, would only be encouraged by the ceasefire.

In theory the two week cessation of hostilities would have ended 11 March 2016. US Secretary of State John Kerry said 13 March 2016 violence had been 'hugely reduced' by 80 to 90 percent since the cessation of hostilities went into effect. But he accused the Syrian government of 'clearly trying to disrupt the peace talks, saying Assad's forces were the 'single biggest violator' of the cease-fire. Rebel groups had also been accused of violating the agreement.

United Nations-mediated peace talks started in Geneva between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime and representatives of Syrian opposition factions. The talks on 14 March 2016 are aimed at capitalizing on a shaky truce between Syrian government forces and opposition fighters. The UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, said a resumption of peace talks is a 'moment of truth' and insisted the 'only Plan B available is return to war.' The High Negotiations Committee, a Saudi-backed umbrella opposition group, said it will attend the Geneva talks and press for a transitional government with full executive powers that does not include Assad or any of his close associates.

The latest round of Syrian peace talks ended on 24 March 2016 with Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations special envoy, setting out a list of 12 principles on which both sides agreed. They included the commitment to Syria’s territorial integrity and unity, to a “democratic, nonsectarian state based on citizenship and political pluralism” and to “rebuilding a strong and unified national army.”

On March 24, 2016 the United States and Russia called for the drafting of a new Syrian constitution by August. They have also agreed to push both the Syrian government and the opposition to free all political prisoners, especially those who are vulnerable.

The main divide is on the question of whether Syrian President Bashar al- Assad should remain in power. In a desperate effort to salvage what was the third round of proximity talks since January 2016, mediators floated alternatives, including the formation of a transitional government run by a council made up of military officials and moderate rebels. None of the options was accepted by either side. In late April 2016 most of the opposition walked out of the talks in protest of what rebels said were the government’s continued attacks that were making the delivery of humanitarian shipments impossible, in violation of a cease-fire brokered by the US and Russia in February 2016.




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